We love to know the future. We are drawn to people who have the answers when we don’t. After all, we make decisions based on assumptions about the future, so it makes sense that we find comfort in those that seem to know the answers. Take these questions:
Has the housing market bottomed out yet? How low will the pound go? Is it going to be sunny in the Caribbean this easter?
Although reassuring, “expert advice” is not necessarily what we look for in a leader. Qualities of leadership often include boldness, confidence and certainty. As Tetlock points out – people who acknowledge their limitations (Foxes) find less public support than those who proclaim knowledge of a “truth” (even when it is unrealistic to do so – Hedgehogs). And so it is that Hedgehogs are more likely to get votes.
However, is this leadership strategy good for us? In his new book Obliquity, John Kay points out that these “truths” are mostly at odds with actual world events. And, unfortunately, actions made by people with these qualities can be disastrous:
It is hard to overstate the damage that has recently been done by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. RSA Journal – Spring 2010
His examples include Iraq and the financial fiasco, and even Gordon Brown’s focus on “defined and quantifiable objectives.” While there are arguably rational justifications for the choices that led to these events, it is rare that such experts correctly predict the future. That is not to say we cannot gather useful information when investing in decisions – whether they be buying a house or going to war. We would be foolish not to gather outside information… However things do not go according to plan!
Is this our leader’s fault? Is it the fault of the systems that we employ? Or is it just life? As Rumsfeld famously said of Iraq – “S*** HAPPENS”. Unfortunately, this is true. What is more, this implicit understanding between us all – that we can never be absolutely sure of anything – allows us to easily forgive and forget.
Yet this should not prevent us from developing our understanding of good leadership. Kay promotes skepticism and humility in the face of both the future and our capacity to make decisions as healthy practices. Unfortunately, we all get bored with lengthy debates about pros and cons and such skepticism isn’t enough. However, more than that, Kay suggests leadership is about keeping track of high level objectives and practicing what I would call Reflexive Leadership – that is, the ability to learn and adapt as things change and new information comes to light. Being proficient in reflexive leadership means being able to face unknown territory with confidence.
Confidence is also one of the more conventional qualities of leadership. That is, regardless of what is said, people who appear more confident inspire trust and more importantly, following. Those that have confidence to face the unknown will inspire those around them. What is more, those that have skills, systems and strategies in place to adapt and manage change succesfully will lead us into the future.
As I suggested in the beginning leadership is not about being an expert, nor is it about being a fortune-teller: Leadership is being able to see the bigger picture and to navigate and adjust to the constant flux of variations we encounter. Good leadership consists, not of being able to proclaim the future, but to recognise and respond to it as it arises in the present. The qualities of adaptability and creativity combined with a perspective of higher goals will cultivate the confidence and integrity that we typically look for in a leader.
Crucial to both adaptability and vision is communication, but that is another blog…